Problem finding is not on the list of typical creative thinking strategies. But I include it here because I wonder if it should be. For me, the notion of “problem finding,” the strategies used to select creative problems and projects, is one of the most fascinating topics in the study of creativity. How did Picasso decide what to paint? Why did Marie Curie study radium?
I have been a teacher long enough that my questions always come back to “Could we help people learn to do this—or learn to do it better? If I helped students think about their own problem finding, would they find better problems?” There is no clear answer, but the question is important enough to explore. Reading the writings of creative individuals has led me to identify several themes in their search for creative endeavors: exploring with interest, playing and wondering, and capturing questions. My experiences sharing these ideas with children have been positive enough to encourage me. Consider how we might plan lessons helping students experience each one.
Exploring with interest entails approaching the world with curiosity (so important in a world when cynicism seems the attitude-of-the-day). It is telling that it is easy to find pictures of young children purporting to illustrate “curiosity.” It is much more difficult to find such pictures of older students–which is why I chose the photo of curious Chloe above. Exploring with interest is important for all ages (and species!)
Students can be taught the value of curiosity through our examples, and the environments we create in our classrooms. They can explore the paths of a nature trail or a collection of graphic novels. They can be intrigued by the strange new object on the table. Whatever the topic, students need opportunities to observe, think, and wonder. While it might seem obvious that curiosity is a good thing, consider how many students go through their school days thinking “I learn what the teacher tells me to learn when the teacher tells me to learn it.” Is it likely such students believe their teachers value curiosity? Consider teaching lessons or reading books about how creative individuals’ interests led them to explore. For example, The Humblebee Hunter tells the story of how Darwin’s curiosity about bees led to chasing flour-tagged bees across the yard! While the story is fictionalized, the curiosity is real.
Playing and wondering. Creative individuals do not just explore; they play. They enjoy the chance to think about things just for the joy of it. I am not sure that we can teach playfulness, but we can model and support it. Teachers who approach their subject with the attitude “This is so interesting. I just can’t wait to show you” have the beginnings of playfulness. Playfulness entails thinking about things just for fun and sharing those thoughts with students. It is not the same as silliness. It is approaching a subject not as content to be covered, but as a part of the world worthy of exploration. Playfulness is full of “what if” questions.
The “wondering” part of this theme is easier to teach. Students can be taught that to ask questions is as important as to answer them. They can be taught the difference between a question asked to clarify a misunderstanding in class and a questions that constitutes “wondering.” Consider lessons around questioning and problem finding as they exist in various disciplines. Students can be taught about the difference between “comparison questions” and “what if questions” in science. They can be taught the ways historians raise questions from artifacts, or the types of questions and observations that can lead an author to a story idea. You might even consider lessons about questioning more generally—for example, you might discuss the kinds of questions that would be useful in different occupations, or discover how many questions you can ask about a pencil.
Capturing questions. Finally, creative individuals pay attention to their wonderings. They capture their ideas and build on them. This is essence of the theme “capturing questions.” A great question or idea is unlikely to bear fruit if it flits across our mind and is gone. Creative individuals in almost every domain keep notebooks in which they record sketches, snatches of dialogue, intriguing story
Students can be taught to capture questions in a variety of domains using writers’ journals, scientists’ observation notebooks or artists’ sketchpads. We can also teach the value of capturing questions by recording interesting questions raised in class that cannot be immediately explored. Posting such questions on a bulletin board sends the message that questions are valuable.
If you’d like to read more about problem finding, see Creativity in the Classroom: Schools of Curious Delight, particularly the sample lessons in the Appendix. Here’s one example. The lessons were designed for elementary school students but can easily be adapted for other levels. As you develop strategies for teaching and supporting problem finding, I’d love to hear about them.